Review: Marvel Pinball: Vengeance and Virtue

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With six Marvel superhero-themed tables already under their utility belts, Zen Studios doesn’t need to convince us any longer that comic books and pinball go together like Aurora and Northstar, to reach for a totally unnecessary Alpha Flight reference. In fact, at this point, it’s become a question of which hero or team’s gonna get the Zen treatment next.

Zen offers its latest answer with the release of the “Vengeance and Virtue” four-pack for the Marvel Pinball platform, focused on some familiar and unusual choices. Fans may quibble loudly about who made the cut and who’s still stuck in the bullpen, but they can’t argue with the cleverness, functionality and faithfulness to the subject matter in this latest offering. At a puny ten bucks for four solid tables, you can feel free to turn in your wizard card if you don’t find something to like here.

In an unexpected twist worthy of a comic-series reboot, the best table of the lot is the one featuring the hero who doesn’t even have his own movie yet. That’d be Moon Knight, the once B-list Batman knockoff with the resurrection-flavored origin. Comic geeks familiar with Moon Knight’s humble mid-80s origins are gonna be thrilled at the ways this table faithfully recreates the Marc Silvestri vibe, from the inclusion of classic villains like the ionically energized Morpheus (yes!) and 3D versions of the Black Spectre and Bushman. An almost invisible crescent-shaped ramp that hovers over the flippers tricks your eyes by unexpectedly swooping the ball from right to left. Blasts of light erupt from the moon planted on the table’s upper left. Nail the correct combos, and you might unleash the moon copter or get to play an over-the-shoulder shooter mini-game. And we haven’t even mentioned the spinning set piece in the upper left that swaps out depending on what mission is currently in play.
The quality clincher is Khonshu, Moon Knight’s snarky/snarly patron deity, who’s the exact opposite of what you’d expect from an Egyptian moon god. Instead, he’s like the worst sidekick ever: Khonshu’s spirit hovers over the 3D Moon Knight’s shoulder during the action, dropping bitterly laced bons mot (“It was YOU who ruined it all!” he barks when you flub your shot and drain the ball).

Rounding out the “Vengeance” half of the equation is a table based on Johnny Blaze’s skull-flamed alter ego. Until your eyes get a proper handle on the table, it feels a little like playing a parade float that’s been laden with one too many eye-candy effects. The ball launches out through a giganto spiral tower that almost always results in a 200,000-point skill shot. A Hellfire shotgun swings out into the center of the table, letting you blast the ball at targets on the right for even more points. Love that The Orb, one of the goofiest/creepiest villains in Ghost Rider’s rogue’s gallery, gets a major laser-laden 3D cameo. Also love that battling The Scarecrow sends a flock of crows fluttering across the surface of the table. Having Lucifer’s torso pop up in the center of the table is an effect that’s been a little overdone, given that similar features are in play on Zen’s Blade and Thor tables, too. Although the points when you bet Mephisto piles of cash multiplier that your flippers can catch Lucifer’s 100 mph pinball fastball almost make his taunting presence worthwhile.

Speaking of Asgard’s resident golden boy, his pinball table’s a big winner for the “virtue” side. Stuffed with 3D animations—if you can keep the ball in play, the Thor avatar ends up having throwdowns with Loki, Ymir and The Destroyer—the table also deftly handles the little details. The left hand ramp looks like the Midgard Serpent, complete with shrieks and smoke, the bumpers double as lava-filled flame elementals under the direction of the titan Surtur, and it’s possible to activate the legendary rainbow bridge to Asgard. Echoing a videogame theme that runs through all the tables in the pack, the heroes and villains have health points that diminish depending on what table targets you’re hitting. Or not hitting, as the case may be.

If there’s a disappointment in this four-pack, it has a distinct mutant flavor. Zen designs a table based on one of Marvel’s largest and most popular franchises, the X-Men, and it’s the Thor table that gets all the cool animations? Only Magneto and Professor X show up as 3D figures. The mutants themselves are represented in dot matrix on the scoreboard and by effects on the table: Storm whips up a tornado, Cyclops’ eye-beam visor launches the ball, and Wolvie’s healing factor is good for an extra ball-save or two. Magneto, meanwhile, hovers near the top of the screen, using his powers of magnetism to rip up pieces of the table and hurl metal panels at the prof. Cool, yes, but it would have been cooler if we hadn’t already seen him do the same sort of thing in the Wolverine table.

Hard to believe that Zen’s scarcely scratched the surface of pinball possibilities in the Marvel universe—biggies like Hulk and Daredevil are still dying for the silver-ball treatment, not to mention superteams like the Avengers and the Inhumans or more obscure up-and-comers like Nova and Dr. Strange. Here’s a curveball for the Zen team to consider: How ‘bout a table based on a villain? It’s time to Bring on the Bad Guys!

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Pros:
+ Unexpctedly, Moon Knight table is one of Marvel Pinball’s best
+ Tables steeped in comics lore offer added fun for fans
+ Tons of heroic 3D animation make the tables come alive
+ Huge gameplay value for a low price

Cons:
- X-Men table is a missed opportunity
- Some table design elements are becoming a little too familiar

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on XBLA for Xbox 360; also available for PS3 via PSN
Publisher: Zen Studios
Developer: Zen Studios
Release Date: 12/13/2011
Genre: Pinball
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Players: 1-4 (2-player split-screen; 4-player online and local hot seat play)
Source: Review code provided by publisher

About the Author

Aaron R. Conklin has been writing about games and games culture for more than 15 years. A former contributor to Computer Games Magazine and Massive Magazine, his writing has appeared on IGN.com and in newspapers and alt-weeklies across the country. Conklin's an unapologetic Minnesota sports fan living in Madison, Wisconsin, home of the Midwest's most underrated gaming vibe.